Automation is generally seen as the enemy of human workers. But can it also be used to avoid layoffs?
Companies often use the term “rightsizing” as a euphemism for shedding staff. Dan Reeve, director of sales with Esker, a vendor of software for document automation and order management, has a different definition.
To Reeve, rightsizing is the act of matching staffing needs to the demands of the moment, without resorting to wholesale layoffs. “CEOs get frustrated because they have to hire during uptimes, and let people go during downtimes,” he says. “It’s not a pleasant thing to do.”
Automation can help companies fix the right levels of staffing without having to engage in a regular cycle of hiring and firing, Reeve believes. It can take over mundane tasks such as data entry, while reserving high-skilled and value-added positions for humans. Such an approach allows organizations to quickly ramp up or cut production without making major alterations to the workforce.
Reeve isn’t saying that some jobs once done exclusively by people won’t be permanently assigned to robots or other types of automated systems. “It’s a little bit naïve to say you don’t need to make any changes,” he says. But a more considered approach to the assigning of responsibilities can help to smooth out the staffing extremes that characterize many companies that are susceptible to fluctuations in seasonal demand.
By putting existing employees into more challenging roles, organizations can improve their rate of retention. In times of low unemployment and competition for staff, “money isn’t necessarily the prime reason why people leave,” Reeve observes. “Often it’s the culture — whether people are doing work they enjoy, with time for training and career development, and a path to move up in the organization.”
Of course, an employee who once performed a “mundane” task on the assembly line or warehouse floor can’t instantly be shifted into a position requiring a higher set of skills. Jobs of that nature are indeed going away, leaving many individuals out of work. So what should be done about all those people whose jobs are displaced by automation?
“I think this is the question of our age,” says Reeve. “A lot of companies are talking about the automation of everything, and that’s a scary concept.”
The answer lies in taking a more creative approach to allocating human labor throughout the organization. Reeve cites the example of a chemical company that freed up customer service reps from performing manual tasks that were easily automated, so that they could focus personal attention on key accounts. The result was happier customers and an uptick in business. The CSRs “became their secret weapon,” Reeve says.
An organization looking to retain talent must offer those individuals opportunities for advancement, he notes. And maintaining a culture of promotion is especially crucial today, given the influx of younger workers into the market.
Millennials, for one, are apt to change jobs far more frequently than their predecessors. “You’ve got to find ways to keep people engaged,” Reeve says. “That could mean letting them move into different departments.”
Some companies might hesitate to make the up-front investments that are required to balance automation with a skilled and stable human workforce. Executives today are demanding a faster return on investment in new systems, and many are apt to focus on large-scale layoffs as a means of improving the balance sheet. But that kind of short-sighted approach threatens to have negative ramifications down the line, when the company finds itself unable to meet increased customer demand due to a lack of skilled support.
“Smart organizations say, ‘What can we do for our customers that makes us easier to deal with?’” Reeve says. “’What is that going to be worth?’”
“When best-in-class organizations face a downturn in the market, they don’t stop investing in people and technology,” he adds. “They accelerate it. So when they come out of the downturn, there’s often a two- to three-X gap between them and their peers who took a more cautious approach.”
Reeve acknowledges that technology will continue to take over a growing number of tasks that were previously reserved for humans. For many companies, the appeal of new tools for streamlining and automating operations is too strong to resist. But the role of humans must also be part of the equation.
In the foreseeable future, there will still be tasks that are better accomplished by humans. Reeve cites MIT professor Cal Newport’s notion of “deep work” — “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”
Even when launching large IT projects, organizations will always need humans with empathy and communications skills to support those efforts, Reeves says. “That is where people have got something to offer over technology.”